November/December Album Reviews

Rock Cellar Magazine

November/December Album Reviews

Rolling Stones GRRR!

In addition to all his great singing and songwriting, showmanship, and jumpin’ jack flash, Mick Jagger was always a businessman. From his student days at the prestigious London School of Economics right down to the present day Mick has been very interested in trying to get his hands on your money.

The Rolling Stones are – or, at least, were – a great band. 1972’s Exile on Main St. was their masterpiece and last great album. If you think that 1978’s Some Girls was a return to form, just listen to the record again, and you’ll discover its at-the-time trendy but ultimately unoriginal and redundant disco and punk tendencies.  (But yes, Beast of Burden is a groovy song.)

So for about 40 years, The Stones have been making millions on half-assed albums (see every record from 1972 on), cranking out the hits for the masses in stadiums and arenas, and releasing compilation albums that usually present the same songs in different orders. Need proof? Since 1972, The Stones have released – count ’em – 21 compilation albums.

Which brings us to their latest compilation, GRRR!

Set to coincide with the November 15 release of Crossfire Hurricane, director Brett Morgen’s HBO documentary commemorating the band’s 50th anniversary, GRRR! is a soundtrack of sorts – and The Stones’ 22nd compilation.

GRRR! exists in numerous versions:

* a 50-track, 3-CD digipack, with a 12-page booklet;
* a 50-track, 3-CD box set, with a 36-page hardcover book and 5 tour postcards;
* a 50-track, 5-12” vinyl box set;
* an 80-track, 4-CD “super deluxe” box set, with a bonus CD of demos of the band’s first-ever IPC studio recordings, a 7” vinyl EP of outtakes from BBC Session recordings, a 36-page hardcover book, a 96-page hardcover book, a vintage poster, and 5 tour postcards.

[You can buy these various versions in our new Rock Cellar record store. Click here]

A question: Do you really need any of this? If you’re new to The Stones, you may want to pick up the 3-CD digipack, which features the band’s biggest hits and offers 10 more songs than 2002’s similar compilation, Forty Licks, which this set is intended to replace.

You’ll get everything from the cover of Chuck Berry’s Come On (the Stones’ debut single from 1963), to Don’t Stop (a serviceable Jagger-Richards original from Forty Licks), and all the songs in between that made The Stones so great in the first place.

You’ll also get two new Jagger-Richards tunes – Doom and Gloom and One More Shot – that mark the first original output from the band since 2005’s overrated A Bigger Bang. Doom and Gloom, for example, features a raunchy and thrashy rhythm riff and a cool beat (courteous of the always-solid and perennially underrated Charlie Watts) but a forgettable vocal melody and phoned-in lyrics about wanting to dance with a woman.

Of course, Stones’ completists (or fans from a higher tax bracket) may want to pop for the vinyl box, the 80-track box, or both.  The vinyl box will attract audiophiles who haven’t already tracked down their favorite Stones’ records on LP; and the 80-track box will pull in Stones freaks who need to own everything that Mick, Keith, and the boys ever produced, especially the IPC CD and the vinyl demos.  They’ll also love the cool books.

But for listeners who fall somewhere between the casual newbies and the hardcore completists GRRR! is an unnecessary indulgence, meant to pad Mick Jagger’s already bulging wallet.  The Stones are about the music, and if you’re anywhere close to a true fan, you don’t need GRRR! —Paul Gleason

Rating: 2 out of 5
Soundgarden King Animal

Soundgarden King Animal
Soundgarden’s new album King Animal starts off with a confident and defiant declaration – they really had Been Away Too Long, and the disc’s lead single announces their return with appropriate fury.

The alternative band’s first album since 1996’s Down on the Upside, King Animal is far more than a ‘reunion record’ – these songs are as visceral, vibrant & grabbing as some of the strongest material of their career. Take Non-State Actor’s wiry guitars & offbeat rhythmic pattern created by guitarist Kim Thayil and drummer Matt Cameron – it wouldn’t have felt out of place on Superunknown.

As for vocalist Chris Cornell, his iconic, unrivaled voice is a tad more battle-tested now than it was in 1992, but he still howls like he always has.
By Crooked Steps starts out slowly before exploding into a propulsive, Spoonman-like rhythmic sway with Cornell singing I’m addicted to feeling/stealing love isn’t stealing, set to a complex drum pattern by Cameron. It’s essentially Soundgarden’s general musical dynamic explained in one song.

Most ‘reunion albums’ are nostalgic glimpses to the past lacking any current, relevant focus, but King Animal is a totally different kind of beast – this merely sounds like a continuation of what they left behind after disbanding after Down on the Upside.
Blood on the Valley Floor’s snarly guitars & deliberate pace has the same overall vibe of Black Hole Sun, while the ominous tones of Bones of Birds, Taree & Black Saturday demonstrate Soundgarden’s innate ability to quiet down and haunt the listener, things they’ve always done well (see: Jesus Christ Pose, Slaves & Bulldozers).

The album closes out on a high note. Worse Dream is notable due to its rhythmic sway and stop-start progression, while Eyelid’s Mouth gets by the repeated refrain of Who let the river run dry? and Thayil’s shimmery guitar licks.

But the finale, Rowing, is one of the finest songs here. Don’t know where I’m going/I just keep on rowing Cornell sings in a chain-gang type pattern, while a mesmerizing guitar lead takes hold. The emotive song crawls along with mesmerizing results, slowly building to its resonant final few minutes. It’s a come-down from the emotional highs on the rest of the record, and it’s a flawless finale to a relentlessly impressive album.

If you’ve made it this far in this review, you get the vibe by now – King Animal is everything Soundgarden fans could ask for. The band is back, rejuvenated and more powerful than ever. Hopefully they don’t go anywhere for a while.

Welcome back, Chris, Kim, Matt & Ben. — Adrian

Rating: 4.5 out of 5

Green Day ¡Dos!

The second of Green Day’s trilogy of new albums, ¡Dos!, goes for the ‘garage rock’ vibe, with the songs sounding as if they were hammered out in a tiny shack somewhere in the Bay Area. Problem is, most of them aren’t really that memorable.

The short acoustic intro See You Tonight leads into the sophomoric Fuck Time, a re-worked tune from the band’s side project Foxboro Hot Tubs. It’s catchy, bouncy, and ultimately unnecessary – hardly the kind of grabbing opening to the record that Nuclear Family and Stay the Night provided on ¡Uno! (Album Review here).

Overall, ¡Dos! misfires at its set goal – being an exercise in Green Day’s ability to go ‘back to basics’ and record a set of raw, snotty punk anthems. Sure, there are some highlights (Stop When the Red Lights Flash, Stray Heart, and the anthemic Who-meets-Beatles mash-up of Wow! That’s Loud), but on the whole ¡Dos! falls short on being a complete record.

When Green Day announced a trilogy of albums, it was easy to speculate that it’d be hard for the band to create three self-sufficient albums of consistent quality. Two-thirds of the way through the set, it’s apparent that that is indeed the case.

Both records so far have had their fair share of strong moments, and ¡Dos! is no exception – Lazy Bones is the best song on ¡Dos!, with front man Billie Joe Armstrong delivering lyrics that can be interpreted as a cry for help, made poignant by his current stint in rehab for substance abuse issues. The backing music is also some of the most vibrant, engaging, and truly fleshed-out on the record, too.
Wild One does the ‘slow Green Day’ song thing admirably, while the offbeat Makeout Party is raw, biting and enjoyable. Ashley amps up the energy, paying homage to albums like Insomniac, but songs like Baby Eyes and Lady Cobra are too pedestrian to really cause much of a ruckus. And the less said about the hollow and weird rap-talk experiment of Nightlife, the better.

¡Dos! ends with Amy, an affecting tribute to the late Amy Winehouse featuring only Armstrong and his guitar. The song finishes what See You Tonight started, as the band unplugs and gets a bit emotional. It works pretty well, but in the end it’s a rare moment of focus on an album of distraction.

For all its highlights there are just as many parts that either don’t work (Nightlife) or are just too safe and inoffensive to really register.
Here’s hoping ¡Tre! is able to cap off this trilogy on a high note. — Adrian

Rating: 2.5 out of 5

How To Destroy Angels An Omen

Programmer and producer Atticus Ross got Trent Reznor’s creative juices flowing again when the two teamed up in 2005 for the Nine Inch Nails’ album With Teeth. Since NIN’s 1999 double album The Fragile, Reznor hadn’t released any material, except for a handful of live and remix albums. Ross helped resurrect Reznor.

When Reznor-Ross partnership began in 2005, Reznor simply began oozing new and, for the most part, exciting new music: NIN’s White Teeth, Year Zero (2007), Ghosts I-IV (2008), and The Slip (2008), as well as the soundtracks for David Fincher’s films The Social Network (2010) and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011). The former even earned the former, black-clad poster boy of industrial goth an Academy Award and subsequent establishment recognition as a SERIOUS artist.

Along with Ross, Reznor also collaborates with his wife – singer Mariqueen Maandig – and art director Rob Sheridan, on the project How to Destroy Angels.  Since its formation in 2010, HTDA is still in its nascent stage, having only released two EPs: How to Destroy Angels (2010) and now An Omen.

Photo by Rob Sheridan

Expectations were high for the first EP, especially since Reznor had announced that he’d placed NIN on hiatus (he’s since announced, however, that new NIN music is forthcoming). But How to Destroy Angels ended up being somewhat of creative letdown. Take, for example, the Maandig-sung single, “The Space in Between,” which sounded like a NIN song performed by a different lead vocalist. And the rest of the record similarly resembled Reznor’s earlier work.

The good news is that on An Omen, Reznor and his bandmates gel much better as a band. Taking the innovative ambient noises of Reznor and Ross’ stunning soundtracks, the opening songs “Keep It Together” and “Ice Age” feature Maandig (with Reznor’s occasional backing) singing soft, under-produced melodies. By announcing Maandig’s equality as an original contributor, these two tracks also attempt to announce HTDA as an original band. In fact, the only track that sounds somewhat redundant is the “The Loop Closes,” whose electronics and vocals (Reznor takes the lead vocal here) make it sound like it could be on any NIN record.

The remaining four songs on An Omen feel like ambient extensions of the Fincher excursions. The addition of breathy vocal lines to augment the electronica, however, gives new and exciting life to what Reznor and Ross started when they worked for Fincher. Maandig’s airy syllables float in the heaven above the ambient drones of “The Sleep of Reason Produces Monster,” and it’s thrilling to hear her and Reznor doing similar vocals together on the EP’s epic closer, “Speaking in Tongues.”

An Omen catches HTDA at a point where they’re beginning to find their own identity away from NIN and the Reznor-Ross soundtrack collaborations. But the band isn’t there yet. You still think of Reznor’s previous work when you hear the EP, which cuts it as a better transitional piece than the How to Destroy Angels EP but doesn’t convince you that HTDA is more than a Reznor side project.
Hopefully HTDA’s first full-length, which is set to appear next year, will be true proof that the band is something greater than its lauded leader. — Paul Gleason

Rating: 3.5 out of 5

Calexico Algiers

Calexico’s albums have always felt like neo-Morricone cinematic soundtracks – haunting songs that weave their way through some widescreen, beautifully-lit landscape, then get under your skin and into your psyche without you even realizing it.  When you put on a Calexico album you are transported to border towns and Civil War battlefields, ghost-filled attics and Indian reservations, slave ships, wheat-fields, cowboy-jails and Hitchcock spy trains.  Tears, struggle! Broken dreams, longing!  History, mystery, intrigue!

Due to their strength as instrumental craftsmen who draw on a vast range of musical styles, the band has perhaps even been criticized a bit for being no more than “soundscapes” – mere background music.  With Algiers – their 8th full album in 16 years – Calexico reiterates that they are not only the band best suited to provide audio for the North American experience, but that they are crackerjack songsmiths as well.

The two core members of the band – guitarist/vocalist Joey Burns and drummer/percussionist John Convertino have again surrounded themselves with a large cast of talented musicians from a panoply of musical influences – Latin, mariachi, Portuguese fado, rural folk and Afro-Cuban, even retro-jazz.  Violins, trumpets, pedal steels, Wurlitzers, Mellotrons, accordions, theremins, saxophones, violas, synthesizers and vibraphones join together in a mélange of ethnic, yet truly American orchestration.

Lyrically, Calexico still is more esoteric than visceral as the nouns on Algiers tumble between natural and emotional borders:  gardens, fields, hammer, storm, trees, ships, mountains, wall, sun, plains, tombstone, light, groves, shadows, walls, ocean, gulf, bridge, waves, wings, ground, voices, bells and even more walls.  Yet woven through the music are the stories of immigrants, slaves, workers and lovers.   Burns’ twangy guitar and the military precision of Convertino’s drums consistently evoke cinematic dark alleys and danger-filled closets where the past and present collide – much like the themes of a Ken Burns documentary.

Production has always been one of Calexico’s strong suits and Craig Shumacher’s touch on Algiers is both powerful and deft: it ranges from starkly intimate on ballads like the aching Fortune Teller, Better and Better, and Hush to breathtakingly full-blown on the epic Para and on Sinner in the Sea — which begins as a Tom Waits dirge and explodes into a Patti Smith-like raging anthem.

Much has been made of the Tucson band’s move to New Orleans Algiers district to record the new album, but this ain’t no Cajun music here.  No Zydeco or traditional and expected southern affectations, and this is a good thing.  From the vantage point of the Katrina-ravaged Louisiana neighborhood Calexico is able to cast a keen eye on the rest of the western-American landscape.

Joey Burns’ voice can be as pure as innocence itself yet (Hush sounds like a young Paul Simon) but with Algiers it has continued to evolve and mature to equally express weatherworn experience with an emotional authority.  On the melancholy Vanishing Mind, Burns simply tears your heart out.

As neo-folk bands like Mumford and Sons, Fleet Foxes, Avett Brothers, Iron and Wine, Band of Horses, Deer Tick, Delta Spirit, and The Tallest Man on Earth continue to popularize the nostalgia of folk-based American roots music, Joey Burns’ voice and the music of Calexico reminds us that there’s a slightly older band that may still do it better. — JC

Rating: 5 out of 5

Scott Walker Bish Bosch

Scott Walker’s musical journey from 1960s’ pop icon and frontman of the boy band The Walker Brothers (whose UK popularity rivaled that other Liverpudlian boy band, The Beatles) is as perilous as the fifty or so years of history that have passed since the magic bullet exploded President Kennedy’s head in Dealy Plaza and ended our illusory innocence.

Government-sanctioned torture prisons, corporate hegemony, and endless war characterize our time, whose violence makes it impossible to believe that we ever believed in Mop Tops and the orchestral pop of manufactured trios of Walker Brothers (it’s true: Scott, John, and Gary weren’t actually brothers).

The three records that Scott Walker has made since 1995 – Tilt (1995), The Drift (2006), and now Bish Bosch – perhaps constitute the best sonic exploration of this violence. This isn’t hyperbole. Walker is a true artist, fearless and incomparable, and Bish Bosch could very well be his masterpiece. In its sheer ambition and innovations, it could be the best album of the year – and maybe the best album of the decade thus far.

Again, this isn’t hyperbole. Bish Bosch exists to challenge you to visit the darkest recesses of the time in which you live. The title is key. According to Walker’s website, the word Bish is Norwegian slang for “bitch,” and Bosch refers to the late 15th– and early 16th-century Dutch artist Hieronymus Bosch, who populated his paintings with fantastic and demonic imagery that often depicted the torments of Hell. And Walker’s record is a contemporary Bosch: a difficult (or, “bitchy”), detailed depiction of the Hell of modern history – or, as Walker’s website proclaims – a “job done” and “sorted.”

Walker most definitely has done his job on Bish Bosch. The 10-minute epic Epiczootics! encapsulates what Walker has sorted out for us. It begins with strange baritone sax blasts that disorient you. Then a mechanical backbeat enters to ground the song in something, before Walker’s incomparable baritone voice enters the fray, delivering lyrics about “putrid petals dropping, erasing white shoes, like a face being eaten by a jungle.” The singing here is truly creepy, and the time signature changes and seemingly randomly linked disturbing images (see: “gut bucket,” “Scratch and Jesus on the corner,” and “humping buggers”) are a sonic revelation of a Bosch painting, a mirror of the chaotic befuddlement of our days.

The other songs on Bish Bosch follow the same approach as Epiczootics!. But the record never feels repetitive because the singing, lyrics, and, most of all, the sounds are so fascinatingly frenzied. Lead track ‘See You Don’t Bump His Head’ contains high-pitched washes of synth noise, occasional heavy guitar riffs, and the repeated line “While plucking feathers from a swan song” as the main structural element of the song.

Dimple begins with a harsh, percussive slam, and then Walker’s voice enters to scary synth sounds and announces that it’s “November in July.” Then the lyrics devolve into nonsense – “INK, A DINK A DINK” and “A DINK A DINK A DINK A DOO” – backed by what sounds like machine gun fire.

So Bish Bosch equals nonsensical violence. See Tar, which opens with the sound of swords being sharpened and poetry about babies, Jacob’s offspring in Egypt, and prophesies of how the righteous will perish.

Also see Bish Bosch’s 21:41 centerpiece SDSS 1416+13B (Zercon, a Flagpole Sitter), which opens with Walker intoning a cappella a summation of the album: “If shit were music, you’d be a brass band.” Bish Bosch isn’t shit – it’s, in fact, genius – and its sonic innovations capture the horror of our times with the clarity of a brass band. It’s this clarity, this mirror of the way we live now, which makes Scott Walker’s latest record necessary for you to experience now. — Paul Gleason

Rating: 5 out of 5

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